/ 18 March 2011

Space, solitude and silence


How many South Africans have cycled through Tuscany or done scuba diving in the Maldives, but never seen the Augrabies Falls?

The world’s sixth-highest waterfall is just 900km from Johannesburg in the parched tracts of the Namaqua Karoo. In late summer, when we first saw it, the flooded Orange River was muscling over the brink and drop-ping 65m to detonate in rainbow-tinged clouds.

Europeans seem quite clear about the marvel of the Augrabies National Park. A retired Austrian couple who we met pay a visit each year and keep a vehicle permanently warehoused in Windhoek for the purpose.
Compulsive twitchers, we decided to spend a fortnight exploring the parks and birding routes of the arid Northern Cape. Driving 3 200km in our beat-up Toyota Condor sedan, we pitched and repacked our tatterdemalion camping gear on seven occasions.

Space, solitude and silence
No bookings, no AA membership and only a rough itinerary, which firmed up into Red Sands near Kuruman; Hotazel (a BHP Billiton company town, we discovered, despite the romance of the name) and onwards along the raptor route; a campsite outside the Kgalagadi Transfrontier Park; Nossob and Mata Mata in the park itself; a campsite north of Upington; and finally Augrabies. It was poor man’s tourism: fuel was our biggest cost, at less than R2 000 all in. By contrast, a flight to Upington for two and a hired 4×4 — the standard method for sedan owners — would have cost R4 500 and R1 050 a day respectively.

Space, solitude and silence. Stony skylines with towering alabaster monuments of cumulus. And — for those who care about such things — a long list of birds (pririt batis, dusky sunbird, Namaqua sandgrouse …) endemic to the dry west.

Be warned: the raptor route and the roads of the transfrontier park are so corrugated that they are not really sedan friendly. Indeed, a waspish notice at one of the park’s picnic spots points the finger at visitors for failing to soften their tyres.

A further anxiety provoker was a Kalahari-style cloudburst that left deep pools, sometimes hundreds of metres in length, on the road to Nossob, requiring repeated hair-raising exercises in automotive aquaplaning.

A beguiling time

But apart from a leaking lilo and a camping chair that popped its rivets, everything did keep going right. In this context it was a source of some pride to see the 4×4 brigade noisily girding their loins at Twee Rivieren, with their khaki fatigues, auxiliary fuel tanks and batteries of gas bottles and spare tyres.

Mid-February in a wet year is a beguiling time to see the Kgalagadi: temperatures are bearable and, particularly in the south, sleek herds of springbok, gemsbok and red hartebeest pronk and cavort. Kori bustard stilt through the lush grass, while red-necked and lanner falcon dive on the squabbling seed eaters that congregate at the sheets of standing water.
At Nossob we watched a hot full moon rise to the barking of geckos (yes, lizards bark in the Kalahari) as kites clustered in their hundreds, locust style, in the thorn trees beyond the perimeter fence.

One forgets that in winter the mercury can slide to 14˚C below zero. The bitter hardscrabble of the early white settlers is suggested by the restored stone cabin at Auchterlonie, where the roof beams are tied with buckskin and a well was sunk into the rock using dynamite and a bucket on a rope.

The incongruous name, incidentally, is one of many given to waterholes by the Scotsman who surveyed and divided the park into farms, ‘Malkop” Jackson. They also include Kielie-Krankie, an Afrikanerised rendering of the Jacobite battlefield in Perth and Kinross.

Nossob is the place to stay: steer clear of Mata Mata, where Namibian border officials run a powerful generator until midnight that conjures thoughts of an idling Boeing 747.

Kalahari Trails, 35km short of Twee Rivieren, holds out a different kind of experience: it is the only place in the Kalahari where game, including all the local antelope, can be viewed on foot. Owner Anne Rasa, trained biologist, Kalahari connoisseur and student of animal behaviour, was ill when we visited, so we tramped through the dunefields on our own.

But generally she or a tracker is available for guided walks for a modest R50 (day) and R70 (night) per person.

Denizens of the desert
Although we were unlucky not to see one of these masterpieces of animal evolution, Kalahari Trails has a professional rep for scorpions — including the potential killer, Parabuthus granulatus. The way to search for these beautiful creatures is at night using ultraviolet, which makes them eerily fluoresce.

But visitors will definitely meet another denizen of the desert, which moves in numbers over the red floor of the campsite — the (disconcerting but harmless) giant millipede, up to 20cm long and thicker than your thumb.

Southwards to Upington on the R204, through featureless flats of the ‘Green Kalahari”, where the only sign of human presence is the odd salt mine and the marching kilometres of roadside fencing. Slight anxiety about the absence of camping until late evening, when we pass the Kalahari Guest House.

A little pricier, at R80 a person, this offered seclusion and — a boon after 250km of motoring through semi-desert — water in abundance. We pitch our tent in an arbour beside a dam filled with waterbirds (including the black-necked grebe, a prized sighting), then, as the sun capsizes, watch them at close range from a drifting rubber dinghy.

Melancholy poetry

Regional chauvinism remains a potent force in South Africa: ‘Kalahari stilte!” extols one of the numerous pen drawings for sale in the shop of affable guesthouse owner and sheep farmer Paul Loots. We opt for the springbok biltong and peach mampoer, which combine irresistibly on the long drive to our journey’s end.

Through John Block territory; a quick detour to view the damage inflicted on the vineyards by the floods; onward through Keimoes, Kakamas and other towns of exotic khoisoid name; past the red-brown squares of drying raisins.

Augrabies is a disappointment on first contact: officials tell us that both the roads and the walks in the reserve are closed because of flooding. The campsite has the melancholy poetry of an old-era plesieroord fallen on hard times — the walls and ablution blocks built to last in immaculate yellow facebrick, but the kids’ paddling pools cracked and empty and the picnic area trashed by storm water.

Strange and vivid landscape
We stay for a night but the brilliant spectacle of the falls persuades us — the next day we book for two more. Then we follow the footprints of other dissidents, stepping across the Parks Board’s red and white ‘police” tape and making off into the interior.

It makes for a strange and vivid landscape, this meeting of desert and racing water. Among the bare boulders and spiny things are mudslides and impenetrable thickets of palmiet. In six hours of walking we did not see another human being. From Arrow Point we looked down on the alpine swifts, and up at the black eagles, coasting the blue void.

Next year the Richtersveld, Mapungubwe, Cape Vidal or the plains of Camdeboo. With such an embarrassment of riches, what reason is there to stray from home?